Indian Pudding: An American Original

Thanksgiving is a party with an all-inclusive guest list and a great menu. After all, who-other than a much loved nephew and several billion vegetarians- doesn’t like turkey? As far as I’m concerned, it’s a must, along with gravy and stuffing. Dessert is another matter altogether.

There are a lot of people who dote on pumpkin pie. I’m not one of them. In fact, I like pumpkin everywhere except the pie…and possibly the lattes. I am a traditionalist, however, so I think the menu should include a dessert rooted in the American culinary tradition, a dessert like Indian pudding.

Indian pudding a la mode

Indian pudding a la mode

Even into the 19th century, cornmeal was frequently referred to as “Indian meal,” a reference to its New World origins. Native Americans used it to make a mush that was sometimes sweetened and sometimes not, and Indian pudding, which is made with cornmeal rather than wheat flour, was often thought to be an Anglo adaptation of those dishes. But as Mark Zanger points out in his essay on Indian pudding in “The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink”( Oxford University Press, 2007) edited by Andrew F. Smith, the dish is more closely related to the typical “boiled and baked” British puddings than to the Native American mushes.

Even so, the authors of “Giving Thanks,” a book written by Kathleen Curtin, Sandra L. Oliver and Plimouth Plantation (Clarkson Potter, 2005), make it clear that Indian pudding is an “American original.” Its roots may be tangled, but its authenticity isn’t. Neither is its age. A recipe for Indian pudding was included in the 1796 edition of Amelia Simmons’ “American Cookery.”

the basic ingredients

the basic ingredients

Indian pudding is almost always made with molasses and milk, two items that weren’t available until after the arrival of the European colonists. So as Zanger concludes, Indian pudding is best understood as an example of Native American/colonial collaboration.

I decided to go with two recipes for Indian pudding. The first is from a book I’ve used many times, the second from a book I’ve frequently used as a research text rather than a cookbook. Both puddings are delicious, although the second is “creamier” than the first

Indian Pudding
3 ¼ cups milk
½ cup cornmeal
½ cup molasses (not blackstrap)
¾ teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 large egg
¼ cup sugar
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground ginger
1/3 cup raisins, optional

1.Preheat your oven to 325-degrees F. In a medium saucepan, heat the milk, cornmeal, molasses, and salt over medium-high heat, stirring constantly, until the mixture is thickened, about 10 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and add the butter to it, stirring until the butter is melted.
2.Separately combine the egg, sugar, cinnamon, ginger and raisins (if desired). Slowly stir this mixture into the hot milk/cornmeal mixtures. Pour the batter into a 1 ½-or 2-quart baking dish and bake for 60-75 minutes, until softly set and dark.

Adapted from a recipe in “The Cornbread Book A Love Story with Recipes” (William Morrow, $14.95) by Jeremy Jackson. The pudding should be served warm, preferably with cream or vanilla ice cream as an accompaniment.

Indian Pudding
Serves 6
1 cup cold water
½ cup yellow cornmeal
4 cups milk
1 large egg
3 tablespoons sugar
½ cup molasses
2 tablespoons (1/2 stick) salted butter
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground ginger
½ teaspoon grated or ground nutmeg
¼ teaspoon salt
Vanilla ice cream (optional)

Preheat oven to 300-degrees F. Grease a 1 ½ quart ovenproof dish or crock.
Place the water in a small bowl and gradually whisk in the cornmeal until the mixture is completely smooth.

Scald three cups of milk in a heavy saucepan and stir the cornmeal mixture into the boiling milk. Boil gently, stirring frequently, for 15 minutes until the mixture is thickened.

Remove from the heat. Beat the egg in a small bowl. Stir some of the hot cornmeal mixture into the beaten egg, a spoonful at a time, until you have added about ½ cup.
Return the egg mixture to the saucepan and stir in the sugar, molasses, butter, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, and salt. Pour the mixture into the prepared dish. Bake for 30 minutes.

Remove from the oven and gently pour the remaining 1 cup of cold milk over the top of the pudding. Do not stir in. Bake for two hours longer or until set.
Serve warm with a splash of cream or vanilla ice cream.

Adapted from a recipe in “giving thanks- Thanksgiving Recipes and History, from Pilgrims to Pumpkin Pie” (Clarkson Potter/Publishers, $22.50) by Kathleen Curtin, Sandra L. Oliver, and Plimouth (their spelling) Plantation

Note: Plimouth Plantation is a living history museum. It explores the culture of both the Native Wampanoag People and the English colonists who arrived in the seventeenth century.

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